It seems un-American to have etiquette restrictions on discussing politics informally, among friends, colleagues and anyone else who will stand still long enough. How else are the citizens supposed to thrash out the plethora of complex issues of our time and arrive at judicious and reasoned decisions?
Well, we could study one another's T-shirts and bumper stickers. We could glean understanding from those who shout down candidates before anyone hears what they have to say, and those who start cheering them before anyone hears what they have to say. Or we can just snap out opinions at one another, and remark upon the stupidity of anyone who doesn't agree.
Since this is what we do anyway, it strikes Miss Manners that etiquette hardly needs to caution that political conversation can be volatile. Conversation? What conversation?
When was the last time you heard political talk that included such phrases as "You do have a point there" or "I hadn't thought of that" or "Tell me more about how that would work"?
Miss Manners can sense the derision felt for these wimpy statements. Why would you say such things unless you didn't know what you were talking about? Anyway, you don't win by making the other person look smart. And you certainly don't win by showing yourself to be so unsure of your beliefs that you can be talked out of them.
She doesn't doubt that this assessment is true for people who are running for office. What puzzles her is why the electorate is more interested in demonstrating that it already knows everything than in delving for information and exchanging ideas.
Perhaps it is because we are so used to observing and participating in conflicts in which sides are chosen ahead of time, anything short of total endorsement constitutes disloyalty, and the object is to win. In law, sports, debates, and business and international negotiations, partisanship is a given.
Even then, the particular rules that apply mandate that each side be allotted a fair chance, limit the tactics that can be used, and require a show of respect for the opposition and for the presiding authority. No one believes that this represents true open-mindedness, but the forms provide order and dignity that prevent the proceedings from deteriorating into melees.
Candidates, their staffs, and voters who have made up their minds should take the same approach. One reason for etiquette's wariness about political discourse is that they often don't. Respect for opposing views is in short supply these days.
But if there weren't a great many people reserving judgment, we could all go to bed early on Election Night. These are the people whom etiquette hates to prevent from talking politics. In theory, they could trade information and insights, and all come out the wiser.
The practice, however, is miserable. Gentle Readers report being hounded by acquaintances and strangers declaring and demanding views, berating the opposition and belittling their supporters.
So perhaps Miss Manners needn't put a ban on discussing politics -- but only on political polemics, posturing, prying and engaging others in conversations they do not want to have.
Dear Miss Manners:
I was told that in the old days, the initial engraved on a woman's silver flatware was the first initial of her maiden name because it was generally supplied by the bride's parents. The person who told me this is very believable and a historian by profession. However, when I tell people that this is what I've heard, they seem surprised to hear that it's not the groom's last name. Could you tell me what the rule was, if any?
Believe your believable historian. In the old days, a lady would collect her silver long before marriage, and, not yet knowing the bridegroom, had her own initials put on it. Miss Manners considers this an even wiser practice in the new days, when the lady might want to collect back her silver after the marriage.
Feeling incorrect? E-mail your etiquette questions to Miss Manners (who is distraught that she cannot reply personally) at MissManners@unitedmedia.com or mail to United Media, 200 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y. 10016.
(c) 2004, Judith Martin